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Faculty Senate Past President's Report

Four Lessons

Thomas M. Sherman, past president 1995-1996

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 09 - October 24, 1996

The senate past-president's speech was originally conceived as a message to the Board of Visitors on the activities and accomplishments of the faculty. Because I spent much of last year learning about the university, its leaders, and how it operates, I thought it would be useful if I structured my observations around these "lessons." So, I will focus on two things: what I learned last year and what I think we need to do to be a stronger and more effective faculty. I hope my observations will be instructive to the whole Virginia Tech community.

First, I learned what a fine faculty we are privileged to belong to. I was continually and positively impressed by the breadth and depth of talent and energy of this faculty. In addition to scholarship that perennially ranks Virginia Tech as one of the top 50 research institutions, programs throughout the university are regularly acknowledged as among the best in the world, and many individuals also are routinely recognized for their achievements. But, even more, I was greatly impressed by the dedication and concern faculty members bring to their teaching, to their scholarship, and to their service activities.

So, today I declare the "problem" of the incompetent professor at Virginia Tech solved. Through this senate's remarkable leadership, a workable post-tenure-review policy was crafted in one academic year, demonstrating our concern and our willingness to respond. It is now the responsibility of every member of this university community to speak out about what we accomplish and to stop emphasizing what some very few may not have done in the past. It is also clear to me that those who developed the post tenure review policy-this senate and the Commission on Faculty Affairs-must be responsible for the policy being implemented with the same intent and in the same spirit in which it was written.

Now, we must work to build a broader recognition of our accomplishments. We have been subjected to a characterization that is wrong and counterproductive to society. Part of this has come from the general trashing of social institutions taking place in our country. But, we are responsible, too. We have been resistant and afraid to speak out. We have been passive until terribly bloodied. Even then, we have responded weakly and timidly.

Beginning now, we must use the talents and creativity we have in abundance to tell the truth. And, we must work together. There is no reason administrators, visitors, alumni, or the general public should doubt your value to our students and to Virginia. It is time for all of us to speak out and tell the true story of the accomplishments of this faculty.

Second, I have learned that the remarkable talent upon which Virginia Tech is built does not stop with the faculty. I had the privilege of working closely with staff senators and leaders on several projects last year. We all know that staff members who work in and support our offices and labs are critical to our success. My impression is that the welfare of the university is a strong concern among our staff members.

However, I am sorry to say I also learned there exist deep divisions and organizational mistrust throughout our university. Faculty and staff members, administrators, and students must find ways to work in mutual confidence. We must develop effective and legitimate avenues for all to participate in meaningful decisions. This will take some courage from all of us.

I think the faculty, and especially the senate, have to lead this endeavor. We must develop more venues for discussion, create opportunities for participation, and expand our spheres of influence. This university needs your leadership and we must build on the first steps we took last year.

Please, do not ignore this need to create institutional strength and cohesion. Education in general and higher education specifically is only in a temporary and superficial respite from attack. We can prevail only through strong leadership and cohesive action. We must work together-visitors, faculty, staff, administrators, and students-to send a clear and demonstrable message that we provide the best and most diverse educational opportunities in Virginia for young people to develop into contributing citizens.

Third, I learned that nothing is so frightening as staying the same. Unless it's change! Our consideration of university governance illustrates my point. As many of you know, over two years ago several of us began proposing changes to the organization of the faculty. I had listened for years to junior and senior faculty members, administrators, staff members, and students complain about our bizarre, gigantic, inefficient, ineffective, exclusive, and glacial "so-called" governance system.

With considerable courage last year you tackled this issue. As the discussion emerged openly and inclusively, I watched an interesting metamorphosis from almost universal disdain and marginalization to loving reverie for the now seemingly divinely inspired existing Virginia Tech governance system. As change proposals became more focused and discussion more serious, more and more retreated to the safety of the system they had so recently ignored and so frequently scorned.

I believe this issue has not been pushed far enough. So, I hope you will continue to pursue it. There are too many among us who feel shut out of meaningful participation in important decisions. More importantly, I believe, too often the great collective wisdom of our community is not heard. We need to establish a more responsive, more accurate, and more inclusive governance structure. We are on the cusp of a new era in higher education.

We need decision-making processes appropriate for these new times. The broader message is that we must seek change by being willing to examine every aspect of what we do with the goal of improving ourselves even if we do not attain perfection.

The leadership of the senate will be critical to make this happen. Now is the time to discuss governance, programmatic, and organizational changes as we enter our self study. You have already initiated thoughtful reflection on many of these critical issues to support your leadership.

Fourth, I learned we are genuinely weak. This was a very hard lesson for me. But, I am convinced that few in our society care much right now about what we do. The quest for knowledge is not a high priority. The justification to all education and research today is based on immediate and economically demonstrable returns. "Can they get high-paying jobs?" and "Will I see an increase in profits next year?" are the two criterion questions used to justify academic degrees and scholarly research. I am afraid our society no longer supports the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake as valuable.

The loss of faith in knowledge in our society has enormous and frightening implications for universities. Over the past eight years, we have experienced some of these first hand. Defining cuts as ways to strengthen, calls to operate like businesses, treating human beings as products, and considering students as customers are indications of how far-reaching is the slow and pernicious attack on knowing.

We are educators and we are good at it. We must educate our publics about the importance and necessity of what we do. Here the "we" I speak of is, again, every member of this university community. The visitors, the administrators, the faculty, the staff, the students, and the alumni must speak with one, clear, consistent, and persistent voice about our real core mission. That mission is to discover and communicate knowledge. We can not forget it and we can not let others forget it.

The senate, again, must lead. We must develop a plan that gets the message out and we must all participate. We must, also, begin to work together in more cooperative and collaborative ways. This will require both new attitudes and new structures. It will require courage and vision. It will also take considerable time and effort; thus, some sacrifice.

We also have to create and build new alliances particularly among the faculty. We have much more in common with our colleagues at other public institutions in Virginia than we have differences. Our common interest in changing public perceptions and public-policy decisions will be enhanced by working together. This is something we have to take seriously and, again, I think this senate has to lead.

The future of higher education in the United States holds decreasing public funding, increasing costs in other social services, more frequent and stronger attacks on tenure, reduced public confidence in scholarship, and increasingly unrealistic calls for evidence of our successes. This is not a pretty picture. We will feel the effects in Virginia and, more specifically, at Virginia Tech.

I believe we can respond to these challenges effectively. We are energetic, we are talented, we are intelligent, and we are creative. We do not have to make up anything or generate special spin on our work But, we must aggressively and accurately talk about ourselves. I have suggested three themes in these lessons I learned last year:

1. Speak out clearly, consistently, and strongly about what we do, why we do it, who we are, and what we achieve.

2. Work together to build a strong, cohesive community committed to seeking knowledge, teaching, and serving.

3. Lead the change necessary to reestablish higher education as a genuine social priority.

I believe the special challenge for each of you is to contribute the time and energy to make our responses successful. We simply cannot succeed without this commitment.

One final lesson I learned. The senate president gets to peek a bit into the windows of the upper echelons of university leadership. Here are a couple of observations about what I saw. I knew almost nothing about the Board of Visitors. I was pleased to find that our visitors are fine and accomplished people who have great concern for Virginia Tech and its welfare. We owe them our gratitude for their service and our encouragement, as well. It was a privilege for me to meet with them and I hope they will accept the privilege of becoming better acquainted with the faculty and our work.

Finally, it was a great honor for me to meet and to work with President Torgersen. He is tireless in his commitment and selfless in his dedication to Virginia Tech. For his remarkable contributions to all of us, while insufficient, I offer my thanks.

I will close with thanks to you for the opportunity you gave me and for your good work last year. Thanks also to those senators who led us so well-Charles Goodsell, Ed Fox, Paul Metz, and Bob Dyck, and, to those who chaired senate constitutional committees: Joe Rogenbuck and Mike Lambur (Committee on Faculty Ethics), Rick Fell (Reconciliation) and Leon Geyer (Review). Eliza Tse, our secretary, and Tammie Smith, my secretary, served us well and my thanks to them also.

And, to end: I read some of the past presidents speeches from the last 10 years. Many could be given today seemingly with only a few changes. We do seem to face the same issues repeatedly-governance, communication, participation, and budgeting problems. My judgement is that, while the issues are the similar, we are not in the same place. We have grown, slowly, but progressively. That is good news. I think we, as senators and faculty members, now have to increase the pace and intensity of our growth as a university through the leadership you provide.